The Common Good

Closer to God, Closer to the Poor: A President's Speech

I was able to attend the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday morning and noted two important things about Barack Obama's speech.

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First, the president was very personal when he spoke about both faith and prayer. And, he talked in such a personal and knowledgeable way about his faith that it would be very hard to suggest that Obama is really not a Christian, as some of his fiercest critics have charged. The president implied that the questioning of their faith has been hurtful for both him and Michelle. Perhaps this was his way of responding to those nasty attacks -- not by defending, but, rather, by affirming.

President Obama said that what binds all prayers together "is that I might walk closer with God and make that walk my first and most important task." That's pretty clear. "When I wake up in the morning, I wait on the Lord, and I ask him to give me the strength to do right by our country and its people. And when I go to bed at night I wait on the Lord, and ask him to forgive me my sins, and look after my family and the American people, and make me an instrument of his will." Again, this is very personal, Christian language for a president.

It's fine to disagree with the policies of a president (as Obama made clear today in his warm and humorous references to his friend, Republican Tom Coburn, who is still his "brother in Christ"). So perhaps some of those Fox News commentators and new tea party members of Congress might be content after today to strongly disagree with the president without questioning his religion or his faith?

Second, I was struck by how many times the president talked about the poor, the vulnerable, and the needy today in his speech -- 12 times! This White House has seldom talked directly about poverty and others have pointed out that his recent State of the Union message was the first not to even mention the subject since Harry Truman. But as he got closer to his faith today, Barack Obama got closer to poverty and the biblical call for social justice. It's not that White House officials don't care about poverty. They do care, but have just done too many polls and focus groups that suggest they not talk directly about it. But scripture tends to trump polling, and it did yesterday.

Clearly Obama's faith draws him to work for those who are struggling with unemployment and housing foreclosures, for hungry children, for poor families, and for justice. As Obama said yesterday, "It is my faith, then, that biblical injunction to serve the least of these, that keeps me going and that keeps me from being overwhelmed."

Barack Obama's speech at the prayer breakfast reminded me of the conversations we used to have together many years ago, just after he had been a community organizer working with churches for the poor on Chicago's South Side and as a young state senator eagerly trying to change things. We talked a lot about faith and about the call to social justice, and how they were bound together. I pray that the president continues to grow closer to God, to wait upon the Lord, and to remember to focus on the poor and vulnerable who, in the official corridors of this powerful city, are so easy to forget.

Christians should always talk about the poor, help the poor, and defend the poor, whether pollsters say it's a good idea or not.

portrait-jim-wallisJim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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